Attorneys make opening statements in Beatrice 6 lawsuit

2014-01-06T20:30:00Z 2014-01-14T16:23:08Z Attorneys make opening statements in Beatrice 6 lawsuitBy LORI PILGER / Lincoln Journal Star

The brutal rape and murder of a 68-year-old Beatrice woman in 1985 sits at the heart of a trial that started Monday in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

But in the end, the jurors won't be asked to determine who did it.

DNA testing in 2008 implicated Bruce Allen Smith, a man who died in prison in Oklahoma, in Helen Wilson's killing.

In this case, it's Gage County and sheriff deputies — who led the cold-case investigation in 1989 and built a case against six others who went to prison for it — who are on trial.

Together, Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden spent a combined 77 years locked up before DNA testing led to White, Winslow and Taylor's release. The others were no longer in prison at the time.

"And the defendants to today haven't accepted one bit of responsibility," said attorney Maren Chaloupka, who represents Shelden.

She said the right not to be convicted of a crime you didn't commit is valid whether you are living on the streets or in a mansion.

"That is what this case is about. That is why we are here," she said.

If the jury finds deputies led a reckless investigation, it could award a judgment in the millions.

White, the only one of the six to go to trial, was convicted in 1989. After the facts about Smith came out, White had his conviction overturned; the other five got pardons.

White later died in a workplace accident, but not before all six sued the county along with former Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, who also has died; Burt Searcey, who led the investigation; and Dr. Wayne Price, a part-time deputy sheriff in 1989 and licensed clinical psychologist who played an integral role in the case.

In an opening statement Monday, Beatrice Six attorneys painted Searcey as a man so obsessed with the case that he ignored evidence that didn't fit and left out key information in getting arrest warrants.

It led to six innocent people being convicted for what happened in a Beatrice apartment Feb. 6, 1985, say attorneys for the six.

But the Gage County deputies maintain their cold case investigation in 1989 was limited by the types of testing available then and by what witnesses told them, in many cases with their attorneys present or under oath.

Beatrice Six attorney Bob Bartle laid fault with the cold case investigation but praised the work of Beatrice police four years earlier. 

Bartle, who represents four of the Beatrice Six, said those officers pinned Smith as the prime suspect within 10 days. But for a botched lab test, he said, "he would have been arrested, and we wouldn't be here today."

Police in 1985 excluded White and the others as suspects because none fit the physical evidence left behind.

But, he said, Searcey ignored that when he picked up the case.

Attorney Herb Friedman, who represents Dean, said even before becoming a deputy, Searcey had wanted in on the action and had started investigating on his own.

"He was absolutely obsessed with this," Friedman said.

By the time Searcey was assigned the case as a deputy, he said, it wasn't so much what he said under oath to a judge to get arrest warrants for the six, as what he didn't say.

He left out, for instance, that none was a match for blood left behind at the scene, he said.

Friedman said Searcey wasn't an evil guy and probably even had good intentions. "But what my dad always said was the road to hell is paved with good intentions," he said.

"The only good thing I can tell you about this case is that no one was electrocuted," he said.

On the other side, attorney Pat O'Brien, who represents Gage County and the deputies, said all but one of the six entered pleas conceding guilt.

"Now they have a different story," he said.

O'Brien said the jury will get to evaluate their statements then and now and decide which they believe.

And he called Smith, who was identified by DNA tests as a contributor to sperm left behind after Wilson was dead, a red herring. O'Brien was cut off by an objection before he could finish suggesting Smith may have acted with some of the six.

"Plaintiffs would have you believe it was one screw-up after another," O'Brien said.

But they conducted a normal investigation and followed the evidence where it led them, he said.

"I think you will conclude that much of the claims (by the Beatrice Six) that were made here are untrue," he said.

At the end of what could be a three-week trial, that will be for the seven men and five women of the jury to decide.

​Reach Lori Pilger at 402-473-7237 or or follow her on Twitter at LJSpilger.

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Cases classified as murders by local law enforcement under the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system, which does not include deaths caused by negligence, suicide, accident or justifiable homicide. Cases may be reclassified upon resolution.

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